The City Car Dilemma: The Fiat 500c vs. The Smart Fortwo

As someone who savors the growl of a powerful engine and who has been fortunate to have driven more than my fair share of exotic, luxury cars,  the idea of owning a small car would normally be at the bottom of my vehicular wish list, certainly not the Fiat 500c nor the Smart Fortwo.

But sometimes practicality, no matter how boring, has a place in central London and that would be the convenience of having a tiny runabout. Now, after trialing both the new Fiat 500c Lounge and the Smart Fortwo Prime Cabrio, I’ve gotten my head around what makes a great city car. Surprisingly, there are some real upsides I had never considered and I see real value in these super minis.

The Fiat 500c – The City and Beyond

Things don’t start well. When the Fiat arrives in coral red with a cream roof and patchwork interior every ounce of masculinity I have dissipates almost immediately. Before I get into it, I’ve already decided this is a car for girls, and any respecting man should run a mile. But, and here’s the surprising part, I’m wrong. Whipping the punchy 1.2 litre engine into action, I hit ‘City Mode’ and spin around in the narrow road outside my house in a single, unwavering swoop. I smile.

Fiat 500c Lounge
Fiat 500c Lounge
Credit: Helena G Anderson

Everything inside the Fiat 500 is as chic as you’re going to get for £15,000. That said, the dash and dial casings are plastic and offer little charm, however the interior is clean, ergonomic and somewhat luxurious. This I like. So as I begin to nip about town, the sun is out and I let the roof down which, to my delight, can be done whilst driving.

In this respect, Fiat have thought long and hard about the usability of the 500c in the city, and being able to control this function without needing to stop or pull over is certainly a bonus. Manoeuvring the 500c is simple and effective, and when it needs to pull away quickly, it can do so without batting an eyelid, despite its tiny 69bhp output.

Surprisingly, another wonderful element to this car is when it’s taken out of its natural habitat in the city. Along country roads it grips hard, whilst maintaining poise, comfort and traction, even when pushed to the limits. Not only this, but the rear seats offer enough space for extra passengers and luggage.

Ok, so although this car is, in my opinion, most happy with two people in it, it will accommodate your friends too. Additionally, with a competitively-sized boot, you could happily drive for a weekend away with your better-half beside you.

I struggle to find much wrong with the 500c, I thoroughly enjoyed driving it; it was responsive throughout, parked up a treat, and even on longer journeys remained fuel-efficient. In fact, I often found myself nipping out in it just for fun, and if that’s not a huge selling point, I don’t know what is!

The Smart Fortwo – One for The City

Smart Fortwo Prime Cabrio
Smart Fortwo Prime Cabrio

Now onto the Smart. Getting into the Fortwo, I’m pleased by the space inside. At almost two meters tall, I’m always dubious about vehicle space, but I fit comfortably. But unlike the Fiat 500c, the Fortwo is but a two seater, so the option of having more than one passenger is not an option.

Nevertheless, I put the nipper in drive and pootle away. And pootle it does, it feeling altogether unresponsive and I worry that if I ever needed to put my foot flat to pull out on the busy London roads, it would struggle to do so.

However, this can very much be put down to the automatic transmission, and I would be intrigued to see the response in the manual model. But at least I’ll be comfortable while moving. The interior is simple and unimaginative, but again, that’s to be expected and I don’t mind this. Everything works well, and the built-in sat-nav is spot on.

A small car is perfect for the city, but it has to have some other practicalities

I take it onto the country roads to see what it’s like at speed. To my disappointment, it feels wholeheartedly uncomfortable and rattles around as if it’s unsure where to go and what to do. I find myself pressing the throttle harder and harder to get it up to a reasonable speed and am left frustrated.

I realize at this point that I’m being a bit unfair and that the Fortwo is really one for the city, and the city alone. After all, that’s what I’m here to decipher, right? Any country excursions are but a bonus. The Fortwo is all about city-usability and, needless to say, parking the Fortwo is phenomenally easy; with a wheelbase of just 2.6 meters you’ll get this car into almost any space.

Here the Fortwo trumps the Fiat, which is almost a meter longer. The boot has enough space for a few bags and some shopping – that’ll do just fine. But it also has a droppable tailgate, which can take loads of up to 100kg, in case you ever find yourself needing to move larger items.

For me, this is a massive bonus. Yes, a small car is perfect for the city, but it has to have some other practicalities, and this is a very well thought through feature. The Fortwo is more masculine than the Fiat, that’s for sure, but far less iconic.

There’s no doubting the quality of this vehicle though, and the Tridion safety cell chassis is renowned for its construction and design. All in all, the Fortwo is a more highly-engineered car: it has always had a simple purpose, to dominate the urban environment, and this it will, undoubtedly, do forever.

Ultimately, with just £300 difference in price between these two cars, it’s clear that in every respect these models are direct competitors. Both offer pros and cons to the urbanite trying to decide on the best car for their needs, but in my opinion, and after much deliberation, the Fiat 500c comes out on top because I’m more interested in an overall  ‘driving experience,’ but I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the Fortwo to people who just need an extremely practical runaround in the city and for this it can’t be beat.  ML

Fiat 500c Lounge, from £15,450, fiat.co.uk

Smart Fortwo Prime Cabrio, from £15,750, uk.smart.com